Brand New Angles [2/DUO]

From the February 26, 1999 Chicago Reader. July 2014 postscript: This fascinating and neglected film, still my favorite among the Nobuhiro Suwa features that I’ve seen, has recently become available on a French DVD released by Capricci see the first image below — albeit with (optional) French subtitles only. You can also access a seven-minute extract with English subtitles at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tLlUHu1OCQ. — J.R.

2_Duo DVD

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2-Duo

2/Duo

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nobuhiro Suwa

Written by Suwa, Eri Yu, and Hidetoshi Nishijima

With Yu, Nishijima, and Makiko Watanabe.

The first feature of Nobuhiro Suwa, a director of TV documentaries in his mid-30s, 2/Duo (1996) is the penultimate work in the Doc Films series “Japanese Cinema After the Economic Miracle: Masaki Tamura, Cinematographer.” Having seen only one other film in the series — Shinsuke Ogawa’s remarkable two-and-a-half-hour documentary about the lives of farmers protesting the construction of Japan’s biggest airport, Narita: Heta Village (1973) — I can’t give a comprehensive account of Tamura’s work. But judging from these two very different features, I suspect I might recognize his shooting style without seeing his name in the credits. Though Narita: Heta Village is a documentary and 2/Duo a fictional narrative, the style of both displays a highly intuitive engagement with the characters, expressed most clearly in the way Tamura places and moves his camera in relation to them, neither anticipating their actions nor dogging them, but navigating the spaces they occupy with an intelligence that manages to project empathy as well as independence — a rare combination.… Read more »

Not the Same Old Song and Dance (2014)

Written for the Criterion dual format  (Blu-ray & DVD) edition of The Young Girls of Rochefort, released in a box set, “The Essential Jacques Demy,” in July 2014. This essay is also posted on Criterion’s web site. — J.R.

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Braque, Picasso, Klee, Miro, Matisse . . . C’est ça, la vie.

— Maxence in The Young Girls of Rochefort

 

Life is disappointing, isn’t it?

— Kyoko in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story

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Broadly speaking, Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) is loved in France but tends to be an acquired taste elsewhere. From a stateside perspective, its launch in the U.S. in April 1968 was relatively inauspicious and uncertain. In the New York Times, Renata Adler began her two-paragraph notice by saying, “The Young Girls of Rochefort, a musical that opened at the Cinema Rendezvous, is another of those strange, offbeat movies produced by Mag Bodard in which a conventional, gay form is structured over what would be, in its terms, a catastrophe.” (The three other Bodard films she had in mind were Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur, Michel Deville’s Benjamin, and Demy’s previous film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.Read more »

Ragged But Right [on UP DOWN FRAGILE]

This appeared in the July 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Up Down Fragile

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Laurence Côte, Marianne Denicourt, Nathalie Richard, Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette

With Côte, Denicourt, Richard, Anna Karina, André Marcon, Bruno Todeschini, Wilfre Benaiche, Enzo Enzo, and the voice of László Szabó

The inspiration of Up Down Fragile? The MGM low-budget films of the 50s that were shot in four or five weeks on sets left over from other films. In particular, a Stanley Donen movie, Give a Girl a Break [1953], a simple film shot in next to no time with short dance numbers. — Jacques Rivette in an interview

Entertainment does not…present models of utopian worlds, as in the classic utopias of Sir Thomas More, William Morris, et al. Rather the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized. — Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia”

Out of Jacques Rivette’s 17 features to date — in which I include his 12-hour serial Out 1 (1970) as well as both parts of his Jeanne la pucelle (1994) — 9 are set in contemporary Paris.… Read more »

El movimiento: A Reconstructed Diary of Cinematic Highpoints

My latest “El movimiento” column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, written in July 2014. — J.R.

TheOwners

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12 June (Chicago): As preparation for serving as a “mentor” to student film critics at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I watch online a film they’re assigned to write about, Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners from Kazakhstan. This is quite a revelation — at least for me, if not, as I later discover, for most of the students. Three city siblings arrive in the county to claim the ramshackle hut they’ve inherited from their deceased mother, and the tragicomic misadventures and forms of corruption that they encounter oscillate between grim realism, absurdist genre parody, and dreamlike surrealism, culminating in a doom-ridden yet festive dance in which both victims and victimizers participate. Unlike the hyperbolic violence that brutalizes the characters of Jia Zhange’s A Touch of Sin by reducing their humanity, Yerzhanov’s use of genre staples actually expands his expressive and emotional palette without foreshortening our sense of the people involved.

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21 & 23 June (Edinburgh): The two high points of my six days here are two very different masterpieces from the first Iranian New Wave, Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1965) and Parviz Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973).… Read more »

Quack to the Future

From the Chicago Reader (September 8, 1989). — J.R.

DAFFY DUCK’S QUACKBUSTERS

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Greg Ford and Terry Lennon

With Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Pie, Sylvester the Cat, J.P. Cubish, and the voice of Mel Blanc.

It seems more a matter of confusion at Warner Brothers than either poetic justice or business acumen that has denied this triumphant new cartoon feature a theatrical opening in Chicago, although it has recently become available here on video. After a limited if successful run in a New York theater last fall and several scattered theatrical play dates elsewhere in the U.S., Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters has entered the vast no-man’s-land of new features that are available for the most part only on tape, never having received the mainstream attention routinely accorded to other, mainly inferior, Hollywood releases.

Recycled Hollywood classics are very much in evidence right now, in a variety of forms, but this postmodernist conflation — consisting of nuggets from nine earlier Warner Brothers cartoons, two more-recent ones, and a generous amount of new material — displays a critical intelligence and a creative energy that were not apparent in such previous compilations as The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, Bugs Bunny’s 3rd Movie: 1001 Rabbit Tales, and Daffy Duck’s Movie: Fantastic Island.… Read more »

Armageddon

From the Chicago Reader (June 29, 1998). — J.R.

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It’s strictly a side issue whether mankind will survive colliding with an asteroid the size of Texas; the real question is whether Liv Tyler, who plays Bruce Willis’s daughter, gets to keep her boyfriend (Ben Affleck). Not wishing to spoil the fun — pretty hard to come by anyway in this 1998 blockbuster’s 150 minutes — I won’t tell you the outcome, but I’ll wager you can guess. Basically this is The Dirty Dozen meets When Worlds Collide: a grubby team of oil drillers headed by Willis is dispatched to save the planet by nuking the asteroid from within. Michael Bay, who was more comfortable with the subtleties of The Rock, is director and coproducer, and among the credited and uncredited writers — all of them clearly encouraged to work in their sleep — are Jonathan Hensleigh, J.J. Abrams, Tony Gilroy, Shane Salerno, Robert Roy Pool, Robert Towne, Paul Attanasio, Ann Biderman, and Scott Rosenberg. Others in the cast who embarrass themselves and us for their salaries include Billy Bob Thornton, Keith David, Steve Buscemi, Chris Ellis, Will Patton, and Jason Isaacs. (JR)

ArmageddonRead more »

Richard Linklater as Global Regionalist [on BERNIE]

My 27th column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as Cahiers du Cinéma España, which appeared, I believe, in their July-August 2012 issue. — J.R.

I have a habit as a critic that I suspect irritates some of my readers. When I find that my opinion about a new film differs substantially from that of the mainstream, I sometimes theorize that the reasons for this must be ideological. In this manner, I speculated that the immoderate fascination of other Americans with the mad serial killers of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and No   Country for Old Men (2007), which somehow seemed motivated by a twisted identification with them -– and especially with the capacity and eagerness of these psychotics to kill innocent people without any compunctions — were related to the fact that these films came out during the first  and second Gulf wars, when Americans were killing innocent people with no compunctions at all, and sometimes even exhibiting comparable displays of glee about this mindless activity.

More recently, I’ve been puzzling over the fact that Richard Linklater’s latest feature, Bernie, a masterpiece that has been clearly delighting many of the audiences that come to see it, was only released after many delays, wasn’t sent to Cannes, and has been doing poorly at the box office —  a fate similar to that of Linklater’s previous feature, Me and Orson Welles (2011), another treasured project which took him many years to finance, and one also dominated by a remarkable central performance (Christian McKay as Orson Welles, Jack Black as Bernie Tiede).… Read more »

Recommended Reading: The Periphery

 

© 2014 Justin Kingsley Bean, "Outer Edge"

© 2014 Justin Kingsley Bean, “Outer Edge”

I’ve never met or communicated with Philip Conklin, who turns 24 today. But his girlfriend, Katrina Santos, wrote me about a week ago, telling me about their new online magazine The Periphery and his birthday and proposing that I write him about one of his essays and offer some feedback and advice. I’m not sure if I can offer any advice, because he seems to be doing pretty well on his own without my mentoring, but I would like to call attention to three of his film pieces that I especially like, and to The Periphery more generally, which seems well worth checking out:

http://www.theperipherymag.com/filmgoing-in-the-internet-age

http://www.theperipherymag.com/modern-times

http://www.theperipherymag.com/the-grand-budapest-hotel

I’m sure that there’s more here to discover and enjoy, so consider the above just a sampler. [7/24/14]… Read more »

This Way, Myth [on ME AND ORSON WELLES]

Written for Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], and posted there on October 9, 2008. — J.R.

“A writer’s reputation,” Lionel Trilling once wrote, “often reaches a point in its career where what he actually said is falsified even when he is correctly quoted. Such falsification — we might more charitably call it mythopoeia — is very likely the result of some single aspect of a man’s work serving as a convenient symbol of what other people want to think. Thus it is a commonplace of misconception that Rousseau wanted us to act like virtuous savages or that Milton held naive, retrograde views of human nature.”

Although Orson Welles is rightly regarded as someone whose creative work partially consisted of his own persona, he remains unusually susceptible to mythmaking of this sort. This is because he often figures as someone who both licenses and then becomes the scapegoat for vanity that isn’t entirely — or even necessarily — his own. Quite simply, many of those (especially males) who obsess on the “meaning” of “Orson” are actually looking for ways to negotiate their own narcissism and fantasies of omnipotence.

It’s part of the special insight of Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, to perceive and run with this aspect of the Welles myth, which is already implied in its title.… Read more »

Pearl Harbor

From the Chicago Reader (May 23, 2001). — J.R.

Pearl-Harbor

Three hours and three minutes of guff and goo about the nobility of killing and/or being killed for arbitrary reasons, whether you’re an American soldier or a Japanese. This is the Star Wars view of the U.S.’s entry into World War II (enemies are invisible and bloodless), which means that even though much of the story takes place in Hawaii, Hawaiians are deemed inconsequential, and the only ordinary Japanese we ever see apart from a few old soldiers are passing details in two shots: kids in the distance flying a kite and a couple of nice ladies in kimonos, both viewed before — not during or after — an air attack. If you decide to hit the concessions stand (where you’re bound to have lots of company), I’d suggest going out for popcorn during either the first hour or the third, because the second features some pretty good big-screen effects involving planes, ships, and explosions. (This is from the same team that brought you The Rock and Armageddon.) The lead characters are fairly interchangeable jocks and nurses — a bit like the characters in Starship Troopers but without the irony, aside from Jon Voight under tons of makeup striking presidential poses as FDR.… Read more »

Blackmail (1974 review)

This appeared in the October 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. This was long before the silent version of Blackmail was rediscovered and restored. — J.R.

Blackmail

Great Britain, 1929                                 Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The extraordinary plateau attained by Hitchcock’s first sound film in relation to his overall development is the sum of many accomplishments: above all, a decisive mastery in moving back and forth between objective and subjective narrative modes. If the point-of-view is one of the cornerstones in Hitchcockian syntax, the film quite likely represents the first time in the director career that it is woven so seamlessly into a plot that all notions of stylistic “touches” gives way to a sustained psychological density. Beginning virtually like a documentary, Blackmail provides a quick foretaste of subjective truth in its early glimpses of the anonymous criminal, which subtly veer from the police’s viewpoint to his own – shifting, that is, from one kind of fear and apprehension to another. The complex overtones and ambiguities of the film are informed throughout by this kind of duplicity and intimacy, which oblige us to identify with rapist along with potential victim, murderer along with corpse, and detective along with blackmailer, at the same time as we are asked to regard them all with a certain amused skepticism.… Read more »

Open Spaces [THE NEWTON BOYS]

From the April 3, 1998 Chicago Reader. My affection for Richard Linklater’s most underrated film has only grown over time. — J.R.

The Newton Boys

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Linklater, Claude Stanush, and Clark Lee Walker

With Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Dwight Yoakam, Julianna Margulies, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Chloe Webb.

Shortly before reseeing Richard Linklater’s sixth feature, The Newton Boys, I caught up with his first — a Super-8 opus from 1988 with the enigmatic title It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books [see below]. Essentially an epic of inaction starring Linklater himself, the movie consists mainly of hanging out, taking train rides, driving, using a variety of vending machines, doing household chores, and watching movies on TV. The film might be described as a noncommercial version of his second feature, the 1991 Slacker – a Slacker without much dialogue or plot, devoted to the everyday pleasures of vegetating and drifting. Some of it reminds me of structural films and of the work of Jon Jost. Just about all of it is attractively shot. And Linklater’s film references — including choice bits from the sound tracks of The Killing and Some Came Running and an extended ravishing clip from Gertrud — pop up like generous, unexpected gifts.… Read more »

The Problem with Poetry: Leos Carax

From the May-June 1994 Film Comment; also reproduced in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

First come words. No, emotions . . .
— line overheard in party scene of BOY MEETS GIRL

Introducing André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View in the late 70s, François Truffaut registered his opinion that “all the difficulties that Orson Welles has encountered with the box office . . . stem from the fact that he is a film poet. The Hollywood financiers (and, to be fair, the public throughout the world) acceptbeautiful prose — John Ford, Howard Hawks — or even poetic prose — Hitchcock, Roman Polanski — but have much more difficulty accepting pure poetry, fables, allegories, fairy tales.” [Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1991, 26.]

I’m not at all sure about fables and allegories — think of Campion’s THE PIANO and Kieslowski’s BLUE for two recent examples, neither of which the public seems to have much difficulty in accepting — and the Disney organization churns out fairy tales on a regular basis. But when it comes to poetry, pure and otherwise, I think Truffaut had a point. It explains not only why Welles never made a movie that was a commercial hit when it was first released but also why filmmakers as otherwise dissimilar as F.… Read more »

Washington Paranoia from the Left and Right: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL & MY SON JOHN

Written in July 2008. If memory serves, this was for an issue of Stop Smiling devoted to Washington, D.C. — J.R.

 

To get the full measure of what Cold War paranoia was doing

to the American soul, two of the best Hollywood A-pictures

of the early 50s, each of which pivots around its Washington,

D.C. locations – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and My

Son John (1952) — still speak volumes about their shared zeitgeist,

even though they couldn’t be further apart politically.

 

An archetypal liberal parable in the form of a science fiction

thriller and an archetypal right-wing family tragedy (with deft

slapstick interludes) that’s even scarier, they’re hardly equal in

terms of their reputations. Leo McCarey’s My Son John, widely

regarded today as an embarrassment for its more hysterical elements,

has scandalously never come out on video or DVD [2014 footnote, it's

now available from Olive Films], though in its own era it garnered

even more prestige than Robert Wise’s SF thriller, having received

an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. It also features

the last and in some ways richest film performances of both Helen

Hayes and Robert Walker. (Although she lived another four

decades, Hayes chose never to act in a feature again, and Walker

died unexpectedly while My Son John was still being shot,

from an overdose of the sedative sodium amytal, administered by

his doctor in ambiguous circumstances.)

 

At once profound about the dynamics of family discord

involving cultural differences and deranged about the Communist

menace, My Son John shows with equal sincerity and intensity

McCarey’s complex understanding of people and his unqualified

support of the FBI’s totalitarian surveillance of his most sympathetic

character (Hayes), when she confirms what they already know —-

that her favorite son (Walker), John, a Washington bureaucrat, is a

Communist agent.Read more »

A Little Transcendence Goes a Long Way [MILLION DOLLAR BABY & THE AVIATOR]

From the December 4, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Million Dollar Baby

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Paul Haggis

With Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, Jay Baruchel, and Mike Colter

The Aviator

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by John Logan

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, and Ian Holm

Despite his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood, like Martin Scorsese, is at the mercy of his scripts. But in Million Dollar Baby he’s got a terrific one, adapted by Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner.

This book was the first published work by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pseudonym F.X. Toole, after 40 years of rejection slips. Boyd had been a fight manager and “cut man,” the guy who stops boxers from bleeding so they can stay in the ring, and he was 70 when the book came out; he died two years later, just before completing his first novel. This movie is permeated by those 40 years of rejection, and the wisdom of age is evident in it as well. Henry Bumstead, the brilliant production designer who helped create the minimalist canvas   — he was art director on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and has been working for Eastwood since 1992 — will turn 90 in March, and Eastwood himself will be 75 a couple months later.… Read more »